Traveling in Moderation, part II: Multimodal Mad Town

Having posted the first Traveling in Moderation, a thought popped into my head:  traveling 270 miles really isn’t very moderate.  My great-grandfather left Traverse County only once, for a church-group trip to Pennsylvania.  Our modern standards for travel have been explosively expanded by the availability of cheap oil, and will contract as oil gets more expensive.  So I suppose I should be flying now while the flying’s cheap.  Anyway, let’s get back to Madison…

As built, Madison is one of the most walkable cities in the Upper Midwest.  Most streets are narrow, and the wide ones almost all have crossable center medians.  The grid shifts with primary travel patterns, and is often sliced through with diagonals, for more efficient paths.  The destination density seems pretty good (although it is hard for me to tell with small cities) – grocery stores are pretty well spaced, and walkscore is fairly high excepting some Suburban Hells on the Far West and East Sides.

The result is a good mode share for walking.  Of course, university towns tend to be walking towns and Madison may not be exceptional among its peers (it’s topped by Columbia, South Carolina, which is so walking-friendly that it’s responding to an increase in pedestrian fatalities by ticketing more pedestrians).  Despite a natural advantage for pedestrians and a municipality that seems to have more consideration for pedestrians than most, drivers do not necessarily have a lot of respect for pedestrians.  Williamson Street, north of the Capitol, has 20′ tall pedestrian crossing warning signs on just about every block that are routinely ignored by drivers (and, as Jarrett Walker points out, actually distract drivers from any pedestrians that may be trying to cross).

Look sharp

Ah well, Americans will be Americans.  Madison still has much infrastructure of interest for pedestrians.  I’ll take you on a short tour of Pedestrian Madison, with some side trips to Bike Madison.  Any such tour must begin with State Street, which a prominent Twin Cities urbanist recently dubbed “the best street in the Midwest.

State Street is similar in layout to Nicollet Mall – a two-lane roadway reserved for bikes, buses and taxis is flanked by wide, attractive sidewalks with frequent benches and quality bus shelters (and without pointless meandering) – but there are two important differences.  One is that retail is still alive on State Street, with storefronts packed with the sort of shops found in Uptown Minneapolis.  Think American Apparel, Urban Outfitters and Ragstock.  I say packed because the density of retail is such that second-floor stores are not uncommon – and that’s without any skyways.  Related to skyways, and like them possibly a reason for the tenacity of retail here, is the fact that most of State Street is lined with buildings of the classic Storefront vintage of the 1880s-1920s.  That gives it a more “authentic” feel but frankly is also mostly more interesting, since buildings are much smaller you don’t have the monolithic giant empty glass lobbies that line Nicollet.

State Street is a great street


The Mall of East Campus

Moving down State Street to the University, take a left after the library onto the East Campus Mall.  Though this mall has been under construction for the last three years, those segments that are finished display a streetscape that is even higher quality than State Street, in part because East Campus Mall is a full-on pedestrian mall, whereas State Street is merely a bus mall.  However, East Campus Mall is missing something that State Street has in spades: pedestrians.  They may be deterred by the construction, but probably more by the lack of retail on East Campus Mall and the fact that it isn’t really a crucial connection.  I’m probably overstating it – in comparison with State Street, it’s meager, but there is still plenty of pedestrian activity on East Campus Mall.  For the record, I don’t know if there’s a West Campus Mall.

Look both ways

Before you get too far down East Campus Mall, pause a moment at University Ave.  Although its intersection with East Campus Mall uses colored pavement to highlight the pedestrian crossing, University’s streetscape is generally bleak.  But look closer, and what at first appears to be a wide expanse of one-way concrete has some interesting, skinnying features.  On the north side of the street is a bus-right-turn-only lane, conveyed simply with a solid lane marking and a diamond symbol, with occasional signs permitting right turns.  Between the bus lane and the general traffic lanes is a bike lane that appears to be about 8 feet wide.  Then, on the south side of the street is another bike lane, this one contraflow and protected with a low, mountable, concrete divider separating it from the general traffic lanes.  (See this photo for an overview.)

Generally I’m not very excited about contraflow bike lanes.  University – which is the half of a one-way couplet that’s closer to the heart of campus – may be one of the better candidates for it though.  Considering the high demand for cycling in both directions on this street, they may have had an ineradicable salmon problem anyway, and merely made it safer by making it official.  What I really like about University Ave is the simple, functional way they handle the with-flow bike and bus lanes.  Why mess around with experimental markings when drivers already know to stay away from a solid line with a diamond symbol?

In the green

For now we want to avoid the University Ave traffic, so keep going down East Campus Mall and go up the on-ramp to the Southwest Commuter Path.  Once up there, be careful – while this path, which was carved out of one of the abandoned beds of a double-tracked rail line that slimmed down to single track, is signed for pedestrian use, it’s only striped for cyclists and isn’t really wide enough for both modes.  Clamber over the brightly painted crossings at the corner of Regent and Monroe and follow Monroe to the southwest.

crosswalk envy

In a few blocks you’ll get to a nice little 1920s retail strip similar to ones you’ll find in the neighborhoods of the Twin Cities.  This strip has a couple examples of Madison’s revolutionary attitude towards pedestrians, which subscribes to the bizarre theory that walking should be viable even outside of Downtowns or Universities.  The first clue is the refuge median in front of the new – ahem – Trader Joe’s on the first floor of a condo building.  The great thing about Madison’s ubiquitous refuge medians is that apparently police actually enforce the law in them.  As the picture shows, it actually does snow in cities other than Minneapolis.  Go a block up the street for maybe a deeper indication of Madison’s commitment to pedestrians, where a construction site required closing the sidewalk.  Instead of forcing pedestrians across the street, they also closed the parking spaces and built a concrete enclosure temporary sidewalk.

Before we finish our tour we need to hit Willy Street east of the Capitol, so let’s grab a B-cycle at Regent and Monroe and take the bike path along the shore of Monona to the intersection of Wilson, Williamson and John Nolen Dr.  The B-cycle station is before the intersection, but after you dismount, notice the bright red bike boxes at this intersection.  Cars actually stop behind them, and cyclists actually use them – possibly because the paint allows people to actually see that there’s a bike box there.

Stop in for a drink at the Cardinal bar, in that 5 story redbrick building in the background

Begging for change

About a block behind the bucky-red bike boxes is the last innovation of our tour.  The three-leg intersection of Jenifer and Williamson Sts is designed so that only buses, bikes and pedestrians can access Jenifer from Williamson.  This was presumably done to cut down on cars driving through on mostly-residential Jenifer, but the restriction also provides a slight transit advantage.  Or would, except the traffic signal seems to be programmed to give as much time as possible to Williamson St.  When I pressed the beg button to cross Williamson, I counted full minute without any signal change.  (Of course it changed after I’d already crossed about halfway.)  Neither Jenifer nor Williamson seem to have enough traffic to justify giving Williamson so much priority; hopefully they can reprogram to make the signal change a bit quicker and the intersection will be more helpful.  Frankly I don’t know why any pedestrian would use it currently; there is a striped crosswalk about 60 feet southwest that would be much quicker for crossing Williamson.

The last stop on our tour will be Capitol Square.  We’ve walked and biked long enough for now, so I think I’ll save it for next time.  But as we walk towards the square we’ll go up King Street, which is one of my favorite streets in Madison and worth a few more blathers.  King is on the opposite side of the Capitol from State (which was originally also named King), and the two share a basic form – somewhat narrow, lined with 2-4 story buildings.  What I like about King is that it shows how nice an everyday street can be – just make sure it’s not so wide that you can’t see across it and even if you give two-thirds of the street to cars, it’s still not bad for pedestrians.

Hail to the king

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One comment on “Traveling in Moderation, part II: Multimodal Mad Town

  1. This is great. I love the walking/biking tour idea.

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